From February to June 2014, Venezuela experienced a period of violence and terrorism by individuals whose stated goal was to force “La Salida,” (the Exit) of the elected government.
One year later, the Venezuelan government has documented the involvement of foreign powers in a campaign of media disinformation that accompanied the unrest on the streets.
On February 12, 2015, the Venezuelan Consulate in New York City commemorated the 43 people (33 civilians plus 10 police and military personnel) who perished during the events that took place last year. The presentation documented that the episode of violence and unrest was not a spontaneous, grassroots uprising. Instead it was the result of collaboration between nonprofit agencies in the United States and an extremely isolated fringe section of the Venezuelan right wing. The goal of this collaboration was to destabilize and overthrow the elected government.
Twenty-nine of the people who died during "La Salida" perished as a result of gunshot wounds, seven from traps set on roads. The violence that ultimately took 43 lives, included motorcyclists being virtually beheaded when they ran into steel wires placed across intersections by opposition groups. Bombings targeted hospitals, universities and buses. Explosions took place dangerously close to children’s daycare centers. Many people were in fear of their lives.
Presenting before the audience gathered at the Venezuelan Consulate, Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University said, “These are events that, even as they were occurring, were misrepresented.” He described the episode of violence as a staged plot to bring the Venezuelan government down – a plot that involved media manipulation and a large amount of foreign backing.
The roots of the Bolivarian Republic
The movement that eventually created the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela can trace its roots to an upsurge in 1989 known as the “Caracazo.” This was an explosion of anger against neoliberal privatizations and the rising cost of public transportation. A rising amount of protests, strikes, and anti-Western sentiment eventually resulted in the 1999 election of Hugo Chavez as president and the 2002 beating back of a coup attempt against him.
Chavez, who took office on a platform of opposing neoliberalism and economic domination by the United States, launched a series of economic reforms. After ratifying a new constitution, the country declared itself to be a “Bolivarian Republic” in honor of patriotic Latin American anti-colonial leader Simon Bolivar. The new government opened facilities, staffed with Cuban doctors, which provided free healthcare to low-income Venezuelans. This implementation of accessible medicine was followed by massive literacy programs.
Starting with the most impoverished, the Venezuelan government has used the proceeds from the state-owned oil company for the benefit of the population. New universities have been established. Labor unions and community organizations have been empowered. Telecommunications, cement, and steel have been nationalized. Food prices have been regulated to ensure the population has adequate nutrition. Land has been redistributed in the countryside, and hundreds of thousands of homes for low-income families have been constructed in a “Grand Housing Mission.”
The result of these reforms has been good for the majority of the population. Poverty has dropped by 40 percent. Infant mortality has decreased by 10 percent.
Before his death, Hugo Chavez declared his aim was the creation of “21st Century Socialism” in Venezuela -- the ultimate goal of what he called the “Bolivarian Process.” In elections, the Venezuelan public has voted for Chavez, as well as his successor Nicolas Maduro, in solid majorities. Election monitors from the United Nations, the Carter Center, and the Organization of American States have all confirmed that the massive popular votes in favor of the Bolivarian Process are legitimate.
However, there has been a minority of right-wing Venezuelans who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency, and are doing all they can to destabilize the government. In his presentation, Ciccariello-Maher described them as “delusionally paranoid” in thinking that “the Carter Center and everyone else” were all part of a “conspiracy” when confirming the accuracy of the election results.
Articles and reports in international media continue to portray the Venezuelan elections as fraudulent, despite the words of the United Nations, the Carter Center, and the Organization of American States.
When Maduro was elected in the aftermath of Chavez’s death, the right-wing opposition had been once again defeated at the polls. Mainstream opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles called for the Venezuelan right wing to re-examine its strategies – to perhaps adopt support for certain economic aspects of the Bolivarian process. The hard-line section of the Venezuelan opposition, based primarily on the college campuses and in wealthy neighborhoods, had different ideas.
On February 12, 2014, the opposition started a campaign of violence on “Youth Day” – a traditional commemoration of an 1814 battle during Venezuela’s war of independence. Ciccariello-Maher stated that the timing of the campaign was very intentional. “The goal was to seamlessly insert themselves into this historical trajectory, this moment of upsurge and resistance against authoritarianism, for democracy, for equality. To do so, they had to misrepresent what they were doing on the ground.” The protesters attempted to present themselves as a Venezuelan version of the Occupy Wall Street movement or Spain’s Los Indignados.
The campaign had little support domestically -- but winning domestic support was not the goal of this campaign. Ciccariello-Maher, who directly observed the actions of theatrical violence and chaos in Venezuela’s streets, said: “It was made for Twitter. It was made for Facebook. It was made for the English-speaking international media.”
The Albert Einstein Institute, along with many “human rights”-oriented nonprofit agencies and non-governmental organizations based in the United States, poured money into and gave wide publicity to the protests. Claims that “people were being shot dead on the streets left and right” circulated the internet, along with inflammatory claims that a “tropical pogrom” was taking place.
This video of police shooting rubber bullets was linked from the blog "Caracas Chronicles" from the phrase "We have videos of soldiers shooting civilians on the street." The post spoke of a "Tropical Pogrom.")
The hope was that the media blitz could be used to justify foreign intervention. Ciccariello-Maher points out: “The hashtags were very revealing… SOS Venezuela. Who is the audience of such a hashtag? It’s some foreign savior somewhere else.”
Videos were published purporting to show the Venezuelan police firing live ammunition into crowds. In reality, the police were only firing rubber bullets in the hope of pushing back an increasingly violent crowd of oppositionists.
Giving a romantic image to the anti-Maduro street fighters, a photograph showing two youths wearing Guy Fawkes masks, in front of a wall spray-painted with the words “Maduro is coming for you,” circulated the internet. Ciccariello-Maher pointed out that the image was very deceptive: “That picture was taken in the center of the richest part of Caracas,” he said. Speaking of the protesters, mostly wealthy students, he remarked that “they did not get out of the rich areas, because they knew they did not have support in the barrios.”
Posts like this on the Huffington Post presented photos painting a romantic portrait of the Anti-Bolivarian protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks. The post fails to mention that the photos were exclusively taken in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Caracas.
An anti-government protester, with the Venezuelan flag, kicks back a gas canister to police during a demonstration in which masked youths battled police and blocked a main highway in Caracas.(Reuters / Christian Veron)An anti-government protester, with the Venezuelan flag, kicks back a gas canister to police during a demonstration in which masked youths battled police and blocked a main highway in Caracas.(Reuters / Christian Veron)
Pointing to the danger of lies spread on social media, Ciccariello-Maher pointed out that “You can debunk it, but by the time you’ve debunked it, a dozen more lies have been spread.”
Continued Subversion from the United States
The violent campaign of “La Salida” was defeated because it did not have support among the population.
“It may have been effective internationally, but it was not effective where it counted: domestically,” Ciccariello-Maher remarked. He went on to describe how the deceptive social media campaign had weakened the international response in defense of Venezuela.
“People in the United States, people on the left -- we failed.” He said. “We fell for the allure of the protester in the streets.”
Since the end of the “La Salida” campaign, Robert Serra, a leader of the Bolivarian Movement who had been elected to the National Assembly, was stabbed to death in his home. Video recorded confessions link the assassins to the US-backed government in neighboring Colombia. A recent plot within the Venezuelan military to depose Maduro has also been exposed.
US government officials continue to refer to both Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez as “brutal dictators.” Based on claims of repression, new sanctions have been placed on Venezuela by the United States.
No matter how many times the Bolivarian government has been democratically re-elected, how much the hostile private Venezuelan media is tolerated, or how mildly the extremist opposition is treated, these claims persist. Because the Maduro government continues opposing neoliberalism and the domination of Wall Street banks, western politicians and media pundits continue to insist that it cannot be legitimate.
The presentation at the Venezuelan Consulate warned that the opposition is likely to again utilize the tactic of creating a staged, unpopular “revolt” as a pretext for foreign intervention. Ciccariello-Maher remarked, “Methods that were historically associated with the left and with struggles against dictatorship are being taken over by the right.”
Indeed, the overthrow of the elected Ukrainian government by forces aligned with the United States was accompanied by a similar media blitz, filled with deceptive images and videos. A similar social media campaign has presented the US-backed anti-government insurgents in Syria as romantic heroes, downplaying their extremism, slaughter of civilians, and use of child soldiers.
Venezuela is currently mourning for the 43 people who died during the “La Salida” events. As part of the grieving process, Venezuelan officials are urging the global community to expect similar events, and be prepared to look beyond mainstream Western media for information. They intend to continue down the path of popular reforms in the Bolivarian process, and expect that there will be many more efforts to beat them back.